Pop Realist Robert Townsend Offers Us Candy, Insight Into His Life

Categories: art, interview

Jena Ardell
[Editor's Note: We chat with Los Angeles-based pop realist painter Robert Townsend to talk candy, career and his affinity for "Mid-century everything"]

"Would you like some rejected jellybeans?" Townsend asks, extending a large glass jar toward us. "They're irregular," he adds matter-of-factly, in attempt to make the candy seem more appealing.

Townsend just returned from his gallery show in San Francisco and couldn't resist visiting the Jelly Belly factory. Jelly Belly sells imperfect candies, meaning their shape or color is somewhat off, at a discount.

Ironically, being in Townsend's loft is a lot like being in an 'irregular' candy store. The colorful ice cream cones of Counting with Wayne Thiebaud (Townsend's favorite artist) tops one of the stacks of art books that flank Townsend's television. In lieu of a fruit bowl, a melted record bowl houses Townsend's vintage candy-colored matchbook collection.

If you look around closely, you will find a variety of sweets both painted on canvas and in real form--giant novelty lollipops and Bit-O-Honey taffies, mostly. Townsend usually keeps an arsenal of fresh sugar cookies in his kitchen, and cupcakes too, if he happens to be painting a giant watercolor of them.

Jena Ardell

Jena Ardell

While we chat, Townsend is wrapping up a day's work on a large oil painting based on a vintage 1950s Kodachrome slide of a women's bowling league. Their beehive hairdos and cat eye glasses make the scene easy to date.

"If you're going to take photos of me painting, you might want to hurry because I'm about to stop soon," Townsend says.

Townsend has put in 150 hours of work on this piece so far and has 100-150 more hours to add until its completion.

Growing Up Googie

Townsend was born and raised in Downey and shied away from L.A. until moving there five years ago. As a kid, Townsend would attend car hop nights with his brother at Johnny's Broiler (now Bob's Big Boy). Growing up near one of the finest examples of Googie architecture seems to have rubbed off on Townsend, who is into "Mid-century everything". Townsend still frequents Bob's Big Boy on a weekly basis to grab a strawberry milkshake and visit an old friend.

Painting by Robert Townsend.

Judging by his talent and eye for photorealism, you would assume Townsend encountered success from an early age, but that wasn't the case. Encouraged by his high school art teacher, Townsend started earning commissioned jobs painting murals around Downey. To make ends meet, Townsend worked in the shipyard at Huntington Beach for five years before pursuing painting full-time.

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